Edward Terry Sanford was born in Knoxville, Tennessee, in July 1865, two months after the conclusion of the American Civil War. His father, Edward J. Sanford, was an industrial tycoon and financier whose money, influence and connections helped the South in its reconstruction efforts following the war.
Sanford grew up in a South still reeling from the horrors of war, and he internalized the suffering and the consequences of war. Such personal experience of a region destroyed, then rebuilt, would later influence his worldview — and the decision he’d make when he ultimately rose to associate justice of the Supreme Court of the United States of America.
The South experienced an industrial boom in the middle and late 19th century, largely thanks to Sanford’s father. Coming from a wealthy family entitled Sanford to a life few people would experience in that century. People who came from wealth in that era were expected to attend college and, ultimately, grow the family’s name and reputation. Sanford was no exception.
Although he adored the outdoors and spent much of his time there, he exhibited exceptional skill when it came to schoolwork. He showed a somewhat obsessive attitude toward the study of politics and history, two fields of knowledge that would serve him well later in life.
He obtained degrees in art and philosophy from the University of Tennessee before he was 20 years old. He followed those degrees with a masters of art and a bachelor in law from the prestigious Harvard Law School by the time he was 24.
After college, he set out on his own by practicing private law in and around Knoxville. In 1898, he took on the role as lecturer at his alma mater, the University of Tennessee, a position he’d hold until 1907. It was in the arena of law that Sanford excelled. He cultivated and developed a reputation as a fierce advocate for his clients, as well as an exceptional trial lawyer. His obsession with politics and history never left him, and in the 1890s he became engaged with local politics.
He married Lutie Woodruff in 1891. Woodruff, the daughter of famed merchant W.W. Woodruff, brought further refinement to Sanford’s aristocratic life. Marriage, however, didn’t assuage his ambitions, which were large. Living in the shadows of his father, he chose to follow the old man’s footsteps instead of rebelling. At varying points he served as president of the University of Tennessee’s Alumni Association, was a member of the Tennessee Historical Society, a member of the board of trustees of Lawson McGhee Library, and he also served as president of the Bar Association of Tennessee.
His extracurricular activities didn’t dampen his interest in law, which he continued to practice with vigor. In 1901, he took on a client, the Knoxville Iron Company, in a case that would lead him to the Supreme Court. Representing the iron company, he argued against a contentious law before the Supreme Court justices. At issue was the state’s right to ban certain forms of payment.
Many companies in those days issued their own currency, known as scrip, which employees could use as legal tender to receive goods and services from stores and companies owned by the organization that issued the scrips. Some people viewed such payments as fraudulent, tantamount to serfdom. States agreed and banned the use of scrips as a form of currency. The Knoxville Iron Company challenged the ban, which led them to the highest court in the nation. Although Sanford argued with passion and conviction, the court sided with the defendants and upheld the ban.
His career in law and as a member and staunch supporter of the Republican Party helped to fuel his ambitions. In the early 20th century, his passion and commitment had developed a national reputation for him. This renown landed him a position as an assistant to the attorney general in 1905. Two years later, in 1907, his ambition inspired President Theodore Roosevelt to appoint Sanford to the role of United States District Attorney.
He found national fame through his position as U.S. District Attorney when he took another case to the Supreme Court. This case, United States v. Shipp, et al., involved a sheriff who allowed an African-American prisoner to be lynched. The case was closely followed by journalists throughout the country. Sanford delivered impassioned arguments and a fiery and passionate closing argument, which was widely hailed as a masterpiece of oratory.
Less than a year later, in 1908, President Roosevelt nominated Sanford to the seat of District Judge in Tennessee. The Senate quickly confirmed the renowned attorney, and he held that position for 15 years. During his tenure as judge, Sanford befriended William Howard Taft, the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court. They developed a close friendship. In 1923, a seat on the Supreme Court was vacated and Taft recommended his friend to President Warren Harding.
On Taft’s recommendation, President Harding nominated Sanford for the Supreme Court. Sanford was confirmed at the end of January 1923. Although he sat through well over 100 cases as an associate justice, he gained further notoriety when he authored the majority opinion in a case concerning anarchist literature. This decision would have wide-ranging effects, essentially opening up and nationalizing the Bill of Rights, especially freedom of expression and of speech.
In 1930, at the age of 64, Sanford visited a dentist for a routine tooth extraction. His extraction site became infected, which led to uremic poisoning. Shortly after, Edward Terry Sanford died. Unfortunately, his death was overshadowed when, a few hours later, his old friend William Howard Taft passed away.
Although he only served on the Supreme Court for a little over seven years, Sanford’s decisions helped to influence the entire country, especially in the interpretation of the Fourteenth Amendment. Earlier, the amendment was interpreted to allow leeway for states in incorporating the Bill of Rights into their legal proceedings and laws. After Sanford’s tenure, however, the Fourteenth Amendment allowed the federal government to impose the Bill of Rights on all states. No one was exempt from adhering to, or benefiting from, the Bill of Rights after Edward Terry Sanford’s exemplary life.